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Teachers of the Inner Chambers
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416 pp.
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Teachers of the Inner Chambers

Women and Culture in Seventeenth-Century China

Rejecting popular image and accepted scholarship on the status of women in premodern China, this pathbreaking work argues that literate gentrywomen in seventeenth-century Jiangnan were far from oppressed or silenced. As writers, readers, editors, and teachers, these women created a rich culture and meaningful existence from within the constraints of the male-dominated Confucian system. The author reconstructs the social, emotional, and intellectual worlds of these women from the interstices between ideology, practice, and self-perception. Born out of curiosity about how premodern Chinese women lived, this book proposes a new way to conceptualize China's past. This reconception rests on the premise that by understanding how women lived, we better grasp the dynamics of gender relations and gain a more complete knowledge of the values of Chinese culture, the functioning of Chinese society, and the nature of historical change. The book examines three types of women's communities that developed in this environment: domestic, social, and public. Women from different families, age groups, and social stations were brought together by their shared love of poetry and common concerns as women. Though important at the time, most of these ties proved fragile and transitory because of women's inherently ambivalent position. The author argues that the gender system identified women both by their shared gender, or women-as-same, and by their social station, or women-as-different. This contradiction accorded women freedoms within their own limited spheres, but these spheres were fragmented and often demarcated by the class of male kin. As a result, even the most mobile and articulate of women had noinstitutional means of launching fundamental attacks on the gender system.
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